All variants are not equally dangerous

New variants, and other bits of news amid the pandemic, are often latched onto and amplified by certain people and media. There’s a real risk this causes fear when it’s not needed

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

The latest variant that is causing a buzz is C.1.2 found in South Africa. No later than two days ago, there is a clear message about it: ‘There’s no need to panic about the new C.1.2 variant found in South Africa, according to a virologist’ – and this is fact the title of an article by Ian M. Mackay, Adjunct Associate Professor, Faculty of Medicine, The University of Queensland, published this week.

In general, most of the variants will not differ significantly from the original in the sense of their capacity to spread or to cause disease, or to respond to prevention or treatment measures. Pic – Quartz india

But what is a variant?

To begin from the beginning – there is the original Covid virus SARS-CoV-2 which was detected first in Wuhan, China in patients suffering from pneumonia, and whose true origin is yet to be established. And then there are its variants.

The SARS-CoV-2 is basically a chain of nearly 4000 chemicals known as nucleotides which are linked together in a given order or sequence. Another name for this chain is the viral genome. Like all living things (caveat: a virus is not quite a living thing, but that’s another debate), and that includes us human beings, SARS-CoV-2 wants to survive, and that means multiplying itself in large numbers and spreading around. But to do so, it needs help and that is where we come in: because it finds a cosy nest in our lungs which are made up of millions of cells (like a house is made up of thousands of bricks).

SARS-CoV-2, or Covid-19 as it is more commonly known, enters the cells, hijacks their apparatus and multiplies. The cells burst open and liberate the new virus particles. They come out of the lungs the same way they went in: through the throat and mouth, and nose – when we talk, cough, sneeze. They then spread a good distance several feet) around us, enter unprotected (by a mask) noses and mouths, travel down to the lungs – and start all over again.

Both as a natural phenomenon – again, common to all living things – and because of several factors which try to prevent it from spreading (sanitary measures, vaccines, treatment) when the virus is multiplying some errors creep in the sequence of the chemicals in the chain. Suppose one part of the chain is made up of the sequence abracadabra, and while multiplying some of the new viruses have a sequence abraDACabra. That change is called a mutation, and the changed virus is now a variant. The ‘purpose’ of these errors is to make the viruses more ‘clever’ than the factors which are trying to prevent it from spreading.

In general, most of the variants will not differ significantly from the original in the sense of their capacity to spread or to cause disease, or to respond to prevention or treatment measures. Those that do — and these are being detected and studied on an ongoing basis by teams of scientists and health professionals globally — become ‘Variants of Interest (VOI),’ and subsequently Variants of Concern (VOC).’

It would help to understand a bit better by what is meant by VOI and VOC, and this is spelt out on the WHO website:

‘Working definition: A SARS-CoV-2 variant that meets the definition of a VOI (see below) and, through a comparative assessment, has been demonstrated to be associated with one or more of the following changes at a degree of global public health significance:

  • Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology; OR
  • Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; OR
  • Decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics.’

It is also important to appreciate what is meant by a VOI:

‘Working definition: A SARS-CoV-2 variant –

  • with genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape; AND
  • Identified to cause significant community transmission or multiple Covid-19 clusters, in multiple countries with increasing relative prevalence alongside increasing number of cases over time, or other apparent epidemiological impacts to suggest an emerging risk to global public health.’

In fact, the C.1.2 variant does not yet figure on the WHO list of VOCs or Variants of Concern, which stops at the Delta variant, currently the one which is spreading more rapidly and infecting more people around the world where it has been detected.

This is no doubt a positive piece of news, but there is another one too, and it is that ‘Covid-19 vaccines produce T-cell immunity that lasts and works against virus variants,’ – again, the title of an article by Dewald Schoeman, PhD Candidate, Molecular Biology and Virology, and Burtram C. Fielding, Professor and Director: Research Development, University of the Western Cape.

The authors write: ‘One important – and positive – aspect of the vaccines hasn’t been well communicated. The statistics about Covid-19 vaccine efficacy have only focused on one aspect of immunity: antibodies. But there’s another aspect too: T-cells, a key part of our immune systems. And the good news is that the current vaccines stimulate your T-cells to fight against both the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its emerging variants in the long term.’

Put together, this pool of information by experts who are actually working on the variants adds up to a message that should prevent panic and instead reassure people, as is done in the first article alluded to: ‘Our vaccines provide protection from severe disease and death against all other SARS-CoV-2 variants thus far and there’s a good chance they’ll continue to do so against C.1.2 variants. It won’t be long until we have a better idea of how C.1.2 behaves…we need to have patience as the data comes in.

Sensationalism and panic in the meantime isn’t going to solve anything. New variants, and other bits of news amid the pandemic, are often latched onto and amplified by certain people and media. There’s a real risk this causes fear when it’s not needed, and inducing fear is a form of harm.

It is a tough time for the public because it’s hard to know who to listen to and trust… it’s best to listen to the experts, particularly organisations whose job it is to track and communicate risks about these things, like the WHO. Don’t amplify or pay attention to obvious alarmism and extreme negativity, and make sure you’re getting your information from media sources that are trustworthy.

Vaccination remains our best single tool. The chances of new variants arising increases the more the virus spreads. Vaccinating as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, is key to reducing the risk of new variants arising.

We also won’t have every single person fully vaccinated, and vaccines aren’t 100% perfect, so there will still be some spread of the virus. But vaccination reduces the risk a lot. We also know what else works to limit this virus, including ventilation, filtering air, masks and social distancing measures’ (bold added).

We know what there is to do to protect ourselves and others too: authorities must communicate better, and people must comply with the advice given (see bold in previous paragraph).

* Published in print edition on 3 September 2021

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